Thursday, December 25, 2008

This Christmas Day

One could say that much of what has occurred below has been an interesting thought experiment up to this point and nothing more. After all, a lot of it is incredibly speculative - what does it actually have to do with theology? Does it have anything to do with the "real" world? On one hand, hopefully my comments about realism/idealism have at least hinted about what I think about "realism" talk. However, on the other hand, Christmas is about Christ becoming human, according to traditional Christianity, right? An incarnation, a materialization of divinity, an image of God finding substance. On this day, amidst rabid consumerism and wide-spread depression, I'm not sure this is what a traditional Christian interpretation of the incarnation was supposed to be. Certainly, this is a form of materialism, of depressed values meeting flesh, but it is not an image of God finding substance. Or perhaps we are revealing who our real God(s) are.

On this day, as we celebrate the traditional day of Christ's birth, ironies abound. We celebrate a birth on a day it almost certainly did not happen. We pay homage to our religious symbols even while our symbolized values lie elsewhere (capitalism? nationalism? individualism?). Allow such ironies to stretch our literalism on this story just a bit. If Jesus was not born on December 25th, perhaps there is room for more threads to the story. Perhaps there is space to (re)tell the story. After all, haven't we retold the story several times already? For better or worse, Santa Claus was not part of the original story. Allow me to (re)tell a version of this story. I do not claim any more literal authority for this story than any other. This story has some familiar elements to it - a Messiah-prophet was born in the land of Israel, preached and worked miracles amongst the oppressed, took a stand against an Empire and was killed partly because of it. After the Messiah-prophet's death, resurrection. Movements (a plural here is key) spawned to follow this Messiah-prophet. And the world was never the same.

All of this began on one day, in one moment - the tragedy and hope of the world had called out. The world could suffer under an Empire no longer. The ontos prayed for hope. People starved, people died of thirst, people were murdered. An empire stands upon the marginalized. Values were broken. Tragedy abounded. But people could not give up.

I do not pretend to know anything about the Messiah-prophet's birth. Historically, any number of locations and days could have held the Messiah-prophet's birth. Perhaps shepherds were there. Perhaps foreign wise individuals were there. Perhaps it really was in a stable. Historically, I cannot say. But that birth is important - because that birth is a symbol. When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate a day we do not know, and yet it gives us hope. Hope breaks in on us like an event, we cannot anticipate it (even from the past). The birth of hope is mysterious. This is no weak mystery, a veil to hide behind. This is the kind of mystery that gives hope its character, that gives hope the ability to reach in from the future and build from our tragedy.

All the symbols, however, are inextricably linked. The birth is inseparable from the life, the prophetic work, the miracles, the death and the resurrection. Most (all?) were not aware of the hope given them until after the end (beginning?) of story had been completed. We find meaning only in narrative form - individual symbols and events cannot function apart from a story.

With this network of symbols in mind, let us turn the story on its head. Instead of starting with the "beginning" on Christmas day, let us start with the "end" on Christmas day. My hope is that on Easter I will write about the "beginning" in full form. After all, if a story is tied together, we should find the beginning in the end, and the end in the beginning. But do not mistake - this does not mean that I think Christ was destined to die at his birth-bed. On the contrary - Christ's death only has meaning to me if it was a choice, an undecidable responsibility. As we look for the beginning in the ending, we should keep this radical choice(s) in mind.

The scene is an all too familiar one - Christ on a cross. In many ways, this familiarity has bred complacency. Has the cross become a whitewashed symbol? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The tragedy of the moment was insurmountable. With a life of radical choice(s), Christ had stood for the marginalized, the oppressed, those which-are-not, against structures of power and oppression. Empire stood in the way of the Kingdom of God. The Empire had no compassion, no mercy. With Christ's radical choice(s), the structures of power moved to remove the nuisance. And make no mistake, to a world of empires, Christ and his small band of disciples was a nuisance at best.

One of the problems with the familiar scene of Christ on a cross is that it is always singular. The Empire had no patience for criminals, revolutionaries and nuisances, however, and typically crucified them all, with thousands being crucified in a day being common-place. Christ was one among thousands, one tragedy among many. The tragedy of the moment only increases from this - one lost voice, bound to be forgotten like all the others. A lost voice...

The death would not have been pretty. Crucifixion was brutal enough by itself. However, carrion birds would typically swoop overhead waiting (sometimes) for the moment of death. Burial simply was not allowed. Dogs would wait at the base of the cross ready to feast on the corpse. The Empire was thorough - it would remove all traces of its enemies from this earth. Keep in mind that burial and death rites were incredibly important in ancient societies - to be denied either was seen as pure dishonor and tragedy (think Antigone).

Absent from this death was any magic of any sort. By magic, I do not mean parlor tricks - there was no magical vindication in Christ's death (or anyone else's death) on the cross. No substitutionary atonement. Any God that needs to be appeased for the sin of the world by death (of any sort) is no God. No one (including God) did anything to vindicate Christ's death. There was no magic in the moment, only tragedy. Christ's death was like all the others, totally unremarkable and absolutely tragic.

Can a storyteller stop the story there? Can the narrative end there? No. We must be open to God's in(ter)vention. The story cannot end there because we cannot let it end there. We hope because we must. Christ was resurrected in the gospels because tragedy is no ending. We cannot live in absolute tragedy. Zizek once wrote that if the crucifixion should have taught Christians anything, it is that God does not use magic to save us on the brink of disaster. We only have ourselves, our own act(ualizations). Zizek was only partially right, we have our own act(ualizations) and we cannot pray for magic, but in the end we do have our stories. Or perhaps, I should say that on this Christmas day, in the beginning, we do have our stories. And there our hope lies.

May hope find you all on this Christmas day,

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